Thursday, 7 June 2007

Records vs Information

Not surprisingly there has been abit of debate sparked by some of my earlier posts about the whole records vs information/knowledge debate.

Of course one answer to this whole ‘march of web2.0’ debate might be to take refuge in the fact that by and large the content created by such systems do not represent business records and therefore are not our problem.

As records managers we have traditionally been in the fortunate position of only dealing with a small proportion of the information created by an organisation: that which fulfils the criteria of a ‘record’. Could we not just dismiss the vast majority of the outputs of Web2.0 applications and services as mere ‘information’ and leave it to its own devices? In theory I guess we could, but my strong feeling is that we shouldn’t.

Firstly, I would point to the fact that the traditional divisions between records and information are beginning to become less clear cut and of less relevance than they once were. An example? Consider the Freedom of Information Act. It is just that – a freedom of information act. It makes no distinction between whether the text is held within the context of a formal business record or on the back of a fag packet. Both are covered by the same conditions and both may well be treated as being of equal significance by the recipient.

Secondly, it can act as a distraction to the main issues. Look at email, we spent (and still sometimes spend) a great deal of time and intellectual effort trying to determine whether an email did or didn’t count as a record instead of just trying to work out how to manage the damn things.

Thirdly, unless we start to cast our professional net as wide as possible we risk becoming less and less relevant to our organisations. Let me illustrate what I mean with some spurious statistics but ones which will hopefully explain my point. Forty years ago in the days of typing pools, formal registry systems and memos the percentage of an organisation’s information that we would acknowledge to be ‘records’ may have been around 80-90%. Twenty years ago with the birth of the PC this may have dropped to 60% (as the amount of informal drafts and ‘documents’ etc increased). Ten years ago with the birth of email, rise of relational databases etc the percentage of the total information within our organisations that we considered to be within our professional remit may have dropped to 30%. Now with the exponential rise in information being created with terabytes of research data, geo-spatial data, image files, multi-media files etc our records management programmes may only be covering less than 5% of our total information holdings.

Now you and I may know that not all information is equal and that our 5% is actually the most important – but is that something widely understood by the rest of the organisation? There is a very real risk that senior management might start to look at this from a risk management perspective: ‘okay, so I know that your tiny percentage of ‘records’ are more important than some of this other stuff, but getting value out of the other 95% of our information (the stuff that represents our intellectual capital) is a far bigger priority which adds value and promises a return on investment. I’ll spend my money there and take the risk thanks…."

Where the challenge (and the opportunity) now exists is in the fact that this other 95% of the information we hold does needs many of the management and governance controls that form the basis of records management to be applied to it. The trick for us is to work out which bits and most importantly how given the radically different environment in which this needs to operate.


Martin Sanderson said...

I agree with the premise of your comment and your concern for records management. My view is that information professionals of all disciplines should focus on the information or knowledge lifecycle in their organisations and apply their expertise wherever it is useful to do so. Records managemnet is just one cycle stream within the broader life cycle. There is no reason why records managers should not extend their remit and apply their skills to improve controlled vocabularies, metadata schema, information design/architecture etc to other parts of the cycle that manage information rather than defined records.

Steve Bailey said...

Hi Martin,

I agree entirely, both with your assertion of the need to manage the entire lifecycle, and the status of records management as only one 'stream' within that lifecycle.

In fact these are the two basic premise that the resource I am currently working on for JISC infoNet is based. The 'Managing the information lifecycle' infoKit is due for release in September. This resource will provide general good practice for managing information of any description throughout each phase of its lifecycle. It will then supplement this general guidance with specific recommendations, depending upon the type of information in question (for example, records).

Watch this space!!

records management said...

I think you are a bit too quick to assume that management would risk the important 5%, but you do have a fair point as for the challenge in recording the remaining 95%.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

What is the source of your spurious statistics. They are intriging

Steve Bailey said...


I made the spurious statistics up (hence their descroption!). They have no basis in evidence but I still suspect the overall trends to be an accurate summary of the trends at play.